2018 Le Mans Classic Review Part Two

It is at this point, we take a gigantic step back in time, from the screaming V10s and ground effect aero of Group C, back to where it all began in the early 1920s.


Plateaux 1 1923-1939


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Plateaux 1 covers from 1923 to 1939 with representation from Bentley, Alfa Romeo, Lagonda, Bugatti, BMW and Talbot to name a few. Back then the Circuit looked very different. It was 19KM long run mostly on gravel roads with cars reaching a averaging a speed of 107 km/h. By 1939, the circuit had been cut to just over 13km and tarmac roads, average speeds were now around 155 km/h. Top speeds today reached 200 km/h at the fastest points of the circuit.

It was a time for invention and courage back then. French Engineer Jean Albert Gregoire was a pioneer in front wheel drive technology and one of the first to enter a front wheel drive car at Le Mans. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a head injury after a bad crash on a reconnaissance lap but despite this, he started the race with an enormous bandage wrapped around his head and a new unexpected team mate. He drafted in one of his mechanics to replace his team mate who was also injured in the same accident. Gregoire went on to finish seventh in his Tracta. The car may no longer be running; however, this represents some of the earliest developments in technology Le Mans has been responsible for over the years.

In recent years, Plateaux 1 has been dominated by both British and French entered Talbots but this year, BMW put up a strong fight in each of the three races. In race one, Michael Birch in the #20 1932 Talbot 105 took the win against strong competition from the #69 Bugatti Type 51 and #6 1939 BMW 328 Roadsters. Rob Spencer challenged for the lead in race two in the #21 1928 Bugatti Type 35B but was unable to beat Gareth Burnett in the #17 1931 Talbot 105. The #14 BMW 328 Roadster of Albert Otten and Diethelm Horbach rounded out the podium in third place. Burnett took the final win of the weekend in race three after a challenging race against Michael Birch and the #14 BMW 328.

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Plateaux 2 1949-1956


Plateaux 2 represents cars from 1949 through 1956, the last outing for some of the great pre-war manufacturers such as Talbot. New comers Ferrari and Jaguar dominated through the early 1950s. There is an increased focus on aerodynamics and brakes to achieve the best performance in areas such as the Mulsanne Straight. The race is now attracting some of the biggest names in the business; Fangio, Moss, Hawthorn and Collins to name a few. It also began to attract other manufacturers, one of whom went on to become the most successful brand in the event’s history, Porsche.

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The 1955 disaster resulted in a big overall of circuit safety, not just at Le Mans but around the world. The pit complex was raised and rebuilt further back allowing the pit straight to be widened. Whilst safety standards improved, the cars got faster, and open cockpit roadsters battled against closed cockpit coupes as average speeds now hit the 200 Km/h mark! The two Cadillacs entered by American Briggs Cunningham were the first to have radio links to the team in the pits back in 1950. That year they finished 10th and 11th respectively. Cunningham returned to the great race in the coming years and in 1953, the latest generation of the car had 400 horse power, an additional 100 horse power on the previous year. That year, the cars hit 249km/h on Les Hunaudieres. John Fitch brought the car home in third and immediately pulled up to his pit box to celebrate and join the team for champagne. It was as the celebrations began an official pointed out that he had crossed the line a couple of seconds before the 16:00 finish point and therefore still had one lap to go! Panic quickly ensued as Fitch dropped his champagne and jumped back into the car, still soaked from his earlier champagne shower! Luckily for him, fourth place was still far enough behind that he was able to re-join and complete the subsequent lap to take the flag and finish third. The Cunningham C4R is racing this weekend in the hands of Alain Ruede who achieved a best place of eighth in race three on Sunday afternoon.

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As in period, Jaguar dominated each of the three races this weekend, locking out the podium in two out of three races. The #3 car of Clive Joy took two out of three wins, winning the first and second race whilst finishing second in race three. Carlos Monteverde continued to challenge Joy across the weekend, taking first place in the final race but finishing second in race one and two. Maserati made a brief appearance on the podium in race two, Richard Wilson putting the 1957 Maserati 250 on the third step having finished fourth in the first and third races.

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Plateaux 3 1957-1961


Plateaux 3 represents the next step forward in sports car racing, bigger engines, more power, more speed. Cars are now averaging over 200 km/h as large capacity 6-cylinder engines or V12s become the norm. Ferrari dominated the era with 3 victories over Aston Martin and Jaguars one apiece. The smaller Maserati also fought it out with the three bigger rivals in the top category. In Grand Touring, the cars are only slightly less powerful with Porsche scoring regular class victories and class championships. The American Carroll Shelby takes his first win alongside Roy Salvadori in the Aston Martin DBR1 in 1959 as lap times begin to tumble.

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Jaguar picked up another win in 1957, however there was a brief flash of brilliance at the start of the race that could have seen things go very differently. Ferrari were drafting in the best drivers from Formula 1 at the time so in 1957, Scuderia Ferrari entered a team of Maurice Trintignant, Mike Hawthorn, Luigi Musso, Phil Hill and Peter Collins. Collins quickly became a favourite with Enzo himself and in 1957, he started the race. Collins ran the sprint across the track, jumping into his 335MM and screamed off down the track, the 390bhp V12 roaring as he accelerated off into the distance. Just four minutes later, he screamed down the start finish straight at 300 km/h, close to 180mph! Despite a standing start, he had smashed the previous lap record. Just two laps later though, disaster struck. The Ferrari had blown a piston and would not re-join the race.

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Despite domination in period, Ferrari only took one win this weekend with Lukas Halusa taking the first race win in the Ferrari 250 GTO “Breadvan”. Roger Wills and David Clark finished a close second before going on to win race two and three in the #68 Lotus XV. The Breadvan went on to finish second in the third race after a good scrap with Clark and Wills midway through the race.